Frost and Woolf: Tradition and Modernity

This is an essay I wrote last semester for my Ideas of the 20th Century course. The assignment was to explore two modern artists who had contrasting views about progress and modernity. 

Robert Frost, a 20th century American poet, opposed the disintegration of tradition. He called for a return to convention both in the content and structure of his poetry. Some poems directly confront the erosion of civilization; others indirectly support his conservative tendencies in the overall structure.

Mending Walls is an early poem by Frost, published in 1914. The poem  tells of two rural New England neighbors who meet once a year at the stone wall dividing their property. They work together to reset the stones that had fallen out of place over time. Frost writes,

 

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

 

As they work, the neighbor recites the phrase he had heard from his father, “Good fences make good neighbours.” But the narrator wonders to himself what the purpose of this boundary is in modern times as they no longer have cattle to contain. Why do they keep rebuilding this wall? For the narrator, this is a ritual—a tradition that connects him and his neighbor. Ironically, the common goal of building a wall to separate each one brings them together.

While the narrator is very aware of the significance this ritual has, his neighbor is simply doing it out of blind tradition,

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

 

The narrator knows that he is trying to maintain the structure that had existed for generations, but he also seems to disdain the adherence to tradition for the mere sake of it. The narrator sees purpose in keeping this wall—there must be some kind of danger that would result from erosion—yet he does not advocate an ignorant allegiance to tradition.

Furthermore, in all of his works, Frost maintained a traditional structure and was strongly opposed to the modernists and their use of free verse. Even in poems that don’t directly comment on tradition, his commitment to rhyme and conventional rules of poetry demonstrate his view on customs and the modernist sentiments.

 

Virginia Woolf, a 20th century British author, is considered a very influential modernist. She was part of The Bloomsbury Group, along with intellectuals such as E.M. Forster and John Meynard Keynes. This group was known for advancing progressive views of feminism, sexuality, politics, and other ideas. The Bloomsbury Group was influenced by G.E. Moore, a philosopher of the era who denied the idea of ethics as a coherent system. He argued that it is misleading to say, “this is good because it  makes me happy,” or to give any kind of justification for the goodness of something. Things are good simply because they are, not because they produce an effect, such as happiness.

One of Woolf’s most well-known novels is To the Lighthouse, published in 1927. Both the structure and the story reveal her modernist perspective. The book is anti-traditional in form—the plot is disjointed and has a stream-of-consciousness style. The novel focuses on how the world is perceived by different characters. The story is told through their perspective and the viewpoint sometimes abruptly shifts from one character to another.

The story takes place in the summer home of the Ramsey family, on the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides. Mr. Ramsey is a caustic and rude philosopher, so caught up in the world of his mind that he struggles to interact with the real world. He often invites aspiring intellectuals and artists to stay at their home. Mrs. Ramsey, the matron of the home holds the chaotic inhabitants together. There is a deep sense of isolation amongst the characters, and Mrs. Ramsey strives to create connection and relationships between them. For example, at the dinner table Mrs. Ramsey devotes herself to developing conversations between her family and the guests. She also does some match-making and watches the progressing romances with satisfaction.

Friendship and intimacy, are values that Woolf saw as good things in and of themselves. It is tempting to ask why Mrs. Ramsey is so determined to create meaningful relationships in her household. There is no reason, it is simply good in her mind and therefore something to be sought after. There is no coherent system for understanding or judging things to be good. You define what is good for yourself, and it cannot be disproved by any person or traditional moral structure. Woolf is radically modern in the very form of her writing and in the rejection of an ethical system to define what is good.

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